How that two roisterous party conventions are out of the way, George Bush and Bill Clinton can get down to the serious business of a marathon slugfest until American voters register their verdict in November. At this stage, this can be said: It could be a Clinton blowout or a Bush squeaker; the reverse is not likely.
What handicaps the incumbent president is a persistent recession that won't go away. Shortly before his acceptance speech Thursday night, the government reported a perverse jump in unemployment benefits claims.
For all the talk about "family values" at the Republican National Convention in Houston, Mr. Bush defined the issue on economic policy. Regardless of prospects for enactment, the fault line will be Republican tax and spending cuts versus Democratic tax and spending boosts. This classic choice could produce unclassic results with the recession in the background. The argument will be whether tax cuts or government pump-priming is the better way to stimulate the economy.
In theory, our sympathies lie with Mr. Bush's approach, provided revenues are not reduced before there is absolute assurance that both discretionary and mandated entitlement spending will be curbed commensurately. But in terms of reality, our doubts persist. Should the president pull an upset in November, chances are he would still be confronted by what he calls a "gridlock" Congress.
The most spectacular of Mr. Bush's economic initiatives calls for draconian slashes in government spending enforced by a new-fangled taxpayer checkoff to use any cuts to reduce the national debt. This is a calculated risk. The Clinton campaign can be counted on to remind Medicare and Medicaid recipients, as well as farmers and veterans, that their benefits are endangered. But Mr. Bush deserves credit for recognizing the need to cap the entitlement programs that are piling up national debt by the tens of billions.
If the Bush proposals have the effect of turning campaign debate away from such "family value" issues as marital fidelity, abortion, unconventional life styles and attitudes toward military service, campaign give and take will be more substantive, though less satisfying to the social conservatives.
For Mr. Bush, the lead Governor Clinton now enjoys will require a shift in strategy that is on view as early as this weekend. He can not take the South for granted, especially with an all-Southern Clinton-Gore ticket. And he also has to concentrate on Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to offset the prospective loss of California. Not since 1880 has a GOP candidate lost California and won the presidency.
How the Bush economic plan will play in Peoria and other Rust Belt cities is one of the conundrums of this campaign. Without a strong economy, the United States will be unable to fulfill the strong world role both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton foresee as an imperative in the post-Cold War world.